Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Aphed Ritual

The sun's fractured reflection danced on his flesh as salt and seawater dripped from his dangling brown bangs. His fin-like feet slapped against the smooth beach sand as a wave crashed into the shallows behind him. A salty-scented breeze pushed the shrinking waters around the fins of his ankles and up the snow white shore. The call of distant gulls echoed from above as he took several steps up the beach, clutching his side from pain and for stability. A red color infected the perfectly white grains of sand; free flowing blood from the gash in his shoulder. The pale blue fins on his upper arm transformed into a bright, tropical purple as the sticky red substance washed over them. He lifted his head upward and glanced at the forest that thrived just a few yards away. Solemnly he looked about the shore, but saw nobody. Desparingly he turned back to the ocean and inhaled the salty wind. He had to find somebody, to warn them quickly. They may have followed him.

A sudden rustling in the bushed behind him brought his attention back to the forest, whose roots stabbed at the white sand. Hope grasped him, as did fear. He did not know if the brush was being moved by an ally, or if they had snuck past him. To his delight and relief he saw a familiar face. Jurin was a member of his tribe. His friend's worried expression reminded him of the wound in his shoulder, but his news was far more urgent.

"Jurin!" he called, but his friend spoke before another word could be uttered.

"Arl, what happened?" Jurin cried as he rushed to his friend. "You're bleeding!"

"It's not as bad as it looks," Arl lied. "I ran into some Sharks from the Sun Tribe while I was at the Infinite Reef. They might be planning to raid the village."

"Very few of our tribesmen are ready for combat at this early hour. A Sun Tribe raid would be devastating." Arl glanced up and noticed that Jurin had turned his gaze to the sea and the orange sunrise on the horizon. "Wake everybody. I'll patrol as much of the area as I can until the other men arive. Oh, by the way, I heard about your proposal. Good luck with that." Jurin gave Arl a smrik before he rushed off to meet the waves. The four hoops latched to the lobe of Jurin's crescent shaped ear caught the light of the infant sun and winked at Arl before they disappeared into the sea. He brought his hand up to his own ear, also shaped similarly to a crescent moon, and rubbed the one lone hoop that hung from its lobe. Envy coursed through his veins, but it quickly subsided.

His brief jealousy silenced, Arl wasted no time in rushing into the tropical brush towards where he knew the village would be. Clumsily, but not slowly, he forced the foliage aside and jogged through the thick vegetation. On several occasions thorns tore at his flesh, ripping the delicate web between his fingers and burrowing into the soft heel of his foot, but he pressed forward without slowing. He kew that the thorn patch and the dense plant life could have been avoided if he had simply followed the predestined path, but he had decided that cutting directly through the forest would be the fastest route. Just as he began to doubt this decision the familiar aroma of charred squid and shellfish swam through his nostrils and he soon burst through the low ferns into the clearing where the village dwelled.

The day had just begun for the Aphed villagers. Few wandered the low cut grass outside the sheds that served as permanent shelters. Those that did were either the night sentries or the morning warriors who came to relieve them. The large leaves and vines in the forest canopy above allowed only small shards of sunlight to illuminate the village. The canopy also shaded the villagers and helped to keep the area cool despite the tropical humidity. Small, white flowers with purple berries clinging to the bellies of their petals decorated the grassy clearing in large clusters.

"Arl!" one of the day guards called to him.

"Niermal, quickly! You must go to the shore and help Julin!" Arl cried frantically. He hadn't intedned to sound rude, especially not to Niermal, but he wasn't very concerned with politeness when he had spoken.

The warrior jogged over to him, spear in hand and concern dominating his face. A dozen golden hoops jostled below his crescent ears. A beautiful crystal that reflected a thousand different colors bounced against his chest with each heavy step he took. "Calm yourself Arl. What has you so troubled? And why do you bleed?" Niermal grasped Arl's uninjured shoulder as he spoke.

"Sun Tribe Sharks at the Infinite Reef. Julin is patrolling the shore, but I saw at least four Sharks. They'll overpower him with those numbers, and if there's an attack on the village."

Niermal motioned for Arl to be silent. "Hush, you are being loud and reckless," he spoke in a low voice. "Do not allow anybody to hear of this until I have confirmed the presence of Sharks on the reef. If a panic ensues it will be impossible to protect everybody. I will go and assist Julin, but you must inform the Elder of what you have told me. And remember, not a word to anybody else."

Arl nodded hastily and watched as Niermal lifted his spear and vanished into the foliage before himself turning and scurrying toward the heart of the village. He rushed past two of the morning sentries and ducked into a shed with walls of sun-dried brick. The blue cloth that acted as a door for the hut fell behind him, separating Arl from the outside. Even the humidity seemed incapable of entering the dark room. Small lanterns dangled from the ceiling, creating what little light penetrated the darkness. The eyes of two men glinted in the lanterns' light. One of them was elderly and sat in a chair that had been carved from the trunk of a large tree, his expression calm. The other man knelt on the floor before him, his head bowed though he glowered at Arl from the corner of his eye.

"Please forgive my sudden intrusion, Elder Oru," Arl said as he threw himself to the floor and bowed before the man in the chair.

"You are forgiven, Young Arl," Oru spoke in a raspy whisp of a voice. "Now please, tell us what it was that sent you in haste."

"Of course, Elder." Arl paused briefly and inhaled the burning pine fragrence that dominated the fumes of a pair of burning candles. After a brief moment of allowing the incense to calm his nerves, he relayed his message. "I was attacked by members of the Sun Tribe near the Infinite Reef. Julin and Niermal have already left to investigate the area."

"Mmm…" The Elder considered Arl's news for several moments before he finally spoke. "Chief Norin, inform the other Chiefs and their groups of the possibility that Sharks may be skulking about in the waters of the Moon Tribe, but inform them not to act further until I have given them my finally word. Until evidence proves that there are in fact Sharks, I do not want a word of this to reach those that are not warriors. I'd also like for you to personally lead four men into the Infinite Reef to assist Julin and your son."

"Yes, Lord Elder Oru," the man replied. As he stood the myriad of rings in his crescent ears jingled musically. Many of the rings were large and gold, almost replicas of the ones worn by Julin and Niermal, but there were also small silver rings that hung from the gold, like children clinging to their mother. The rings continued to jingle as Norin made his way to the other side of the dimly lit shed, at last becoming silent as he vanished behind the cloth door.

There were several moments of an almost pure silence after that, the light crackle of the burning incense and the wheezing breaths of Elder Oru being the only sounds. Arl held his down respectfully, his eyes focused on the weaving patterns of the grass floor. The calming scent of pine filled his nostrils with every breath, but with each exhale he could feel the tension swell in his chest. Too many moments had passed without a word, and Arl could neither leave nor speak without Oru's permission. He began to wonder why the old man had fell so silent, and for some reason he felt nervous that he might be accused of something despite the fact that he could not remember doing anything that would bring about such a guilty conscience. Eventually he decided that he felt this way because he was both witness to the Sharks and the bringer of much unwanted news.

"Please sit at your comfort. There's no need of you to bow for so long," Oru said, bringing a great relief with the broken silence. Unsure of exactly what to do, Arl sat in a position that wasn't exactl comfortable but was significantly more tolerable than kneeling and bowing with his forehead almost to the floor. Oru grunted as though he was clearing his throat, then spoke again, his old lips quivering as he did. "I have heard of your proposal. Norin has informed me. What you have asked of the Chief is an enormous favor, one that he does not feel you are worth. Nevertheless, he has granted you the opportunity to prove yourself to him, to prove that you are worthy of acceptance. Before you are overwhelmed with responsibility, I must ask if you are truly ready?"

Arl was caught off guard by the subject Oru had chosen for discussion, but his answer came more quickly than even he anticipated. "I am ready without a doubt."

Oru nodded slowly, his long beard ruffling as he did. He stared at Arl with solemn, teal eyes as he spoke. "Then you know what must be done. Two of your three days remain. I pray for your success, Arl. You are a good man, but still so young."

Arl nodded and left when the Elfer motioned with one webbed hand. As the cloth fell behind him and the spliced rays of sunlight warmed his face, Arl took a deep breath and found some relief in the humid air. He glanced to his left and spotted Norin a few yards away speaking with another of the village's Chiefs and preparing his own small team. The warriors were almost identical to the average villager, the gold loops that weighed down their ears and the scars that crisscrossed over their bodies being the only indicators that they were not weavers or gatherers. There was also their spears, a final indication of their job. The spears were long with a smooth wooden shaft and a metal head that thinned into a fine point. A dorsal fin protruded from the top of the neck that connected the head to the shaft, giving the spear the appearance of a famished shark.

The spear in Norin's hands was slightly different and far more elegant to symbolise his rank. Its iron shaft connected to a gold plated head. Tendrils of pink and dandilion yellow dangled from the head like delicate whiskers silently hunting for prey.

"Arl!" The voice was unexpected and Arl snapped his head quickly in its direction. Not quickly enough to avoid Norin's malevolent glare as he also turned toward the voice. Arl could feel the glare on his back, but he quickly became numb to its piercing sensation when he saw the woman who had shouted his name come bounding up to him. She threw her pink tinted arms around his neck and pulled him into a tight embrace.

"Borin, how are you this morning?" Arl asked as a gentle warmth seeped into his body. He wrapped his arms around her body, being extra careful not to crush her dorsal fin.

"I'm fine," she answered quietly. "But you feel cold."

"Don't worry about it, I'm fine. The water was just cold, my Cherry," Arl replied reassuringly, her pet name rolling off his tongue fondly. He remembered first calling her "Cherry" when they were children, long before their relationship had matured. It was because of the pink hue of her skin and the cherry scent that always seemed to rise from her flesh. Even now he was sure that he could faintly smell them, cherries of the sweetest variety available by nature. He loved that scent, and so he allowed it to linger within him and ferment into something more beautiful until it vanished into sterile air.

"Two of your three days remain," Oru's voice reminded him from the depths of his mind, but he did not care for their meaning right now. He would spend his day with Borin and complete his task at night, under the full moon, when he knew that his senses would be at their best.


The salty sea breeze filled his nostrils and left a hint of flavor on his tongue. He tightly fastened the straps that crisscrossed his chest and harnessed the sharkhead spear to his back. He pulled the string of his shorts until they hugged his waist snugly, though he was careful not to crush his dorsal fin. A small slice in the fin, which had been made at a young age, assisted in this.

The waves shooshed as they crawled up the shore, sifting the sand with their gentle touch. The quiet breeze caused his long, brown hair to dance calmly, almost rhythmically. Salt had formed a cloudy film over the protective lenses of his eyes, but a short series of impossibly fast blinks wiped them clean. He inhaled deeply and took a step forward, his finned foot slapped noisily on the beach and cracking sand.

"Wait!" Her voice stopped him, and he spun around just as Borin finished crashing through the foliage and began to march onto the shore beside him. She was dressed as she had been that morning, despite the night's late hour. "You shouldn't go. It's too dangerous with Sharks skulking about."

"How did you know?" Arl asked, averting his gaze.

"Niermal told me, he was worried about the sharks, and with you in the water…"

"The sharks don't matter," Arl squng his head back towards her. He felt his one gold hoop tug at his ear as it rocked to-and-fro. "I have no scars and only one medal to prove my worth. Your father would never accept me as I am, and certainly not if I cannot find the shell before my third day."

"You don't need to prove yourself to him. We can go to the civilized lands, be happy together there."

"I would never feel at ease if I were to break this tradition."

"Fine, but you'd better not die!" She seemed angry for some reason Arl couldn't understand. He watched as she spun around and marched into the forest, her pink dorsal fin the last to disappear into darkness. Inhaling the last lingering scent of strawberry he turned and threw himself into the lethargic waves of the sea.

He felt much more at home in the water, where the fins on his ankles and wrists, and the webbing between his toes were of some use. Several flaps of skin lifted away from his neck, becoming an extra fin and revealing the rows of gills beneath. Hastily he gulped down some water, naturally filtering the oxygen to his lungs. The thin, mostly invisible lenses over his eyes protected him from the salt and whatever other particles that might pose a threat to his delicate optics. His body tingled with life as he absorbed the water into his sleek skin. Weightlessness allowed him to float freely in his aquatic haven. His hair danced wildly as though it were no longer a part of him.

Regrettably the feeling did not last. Bliss was not permitted to distract him from his objective, and Arl quickly focused his thoughts on one goal. He was to track down the elusive magnificea fish and take the rainbow crystal shell that protected it. Though he had never seen a magnificea before, Arl suspected that he would recognize one easily. He had seen the crystal necklaces worn by married members of his tribe, and knew that he could never mistake their beauty.

The night before, he had searched the Infinite Reef and found nothing but Sun Tribe warriors. Tonight he decided to investigate the Devoid Ridge. The ridge was a large gash that scarred the ocean floor for miles and dove deeper into the ocean than any of the Moon Tribe dared to venture, if the pressure would permit them to journey to its bottom at all. Arl reasoned that it was likely for an elusive fish to be hiding in the shadows of the void. He also thouht it likely that Sharks were lurking in the veiled depths of the ridge. In fact, he knew there were. The ridge served as the boundary line between the two tribes, and it was more than likely that the Sharks would have some form of border patrol.

Despite the risk, Arl launched himself into the ridge, cutting through the water like a living torpedo. Down and out of the sun's reach into the blinding darkness below. Careful not to hit the ridge wall, he kept his eyes wide to survey as much of the unlit scenery as he could. Certainly the unique eyes with which all Aphed, himself included, possessed allowed him to see much better in the dark depths than would and Elf or a Dwarf. Only the Merfolk or Cecaelian might have an advantage in the ridge.

Deeper he plunged into the darkness, kicking webbed feet behind him. The water grew colder the further down he went, and he soon found that he was fighting against the urge to shiver as a needling sensation pervaded his flesh. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a blur, a flash of brilliant blue and pink light. Instinctively he snapped his head to the side, his fingers tightened around the spear in his hand. A ship sunken long ago, its wood decrepit with age and smothered by the thousands of tiny creatures that had consumed it over the decades, was snagged between two jagged rocks that reached away from the ridge wall. Though he wasn't sure, Arl thought he saw the blend of beautiful colors disappear into the ship.

He hesitated to approach the decaying wood work, considering the possibility that Sharks could be using it as some sort of bunker. Despite this he willed himself forward, hoping that the spear in his hand would bite anything that might assault him. Wriggling and twisting with no small bit of effort, Arl forced himself through a small porthole. There had been a large chunk missing from the side of the ship where a cannonball had evidently shattered the wood, but he figured that such an obvious entrance would be guarded by Sharks.

The room inside was covered in a slippery, mossy organism that made it difficult for Arl to pull himself the rest of the way through the porthole. Few pieces of furniture occupied the room, though there was a bed with a torn and leaking mattress pushed against one wall, and a desk that had lost hold of its drawers against the opposite. The large size of the bed and its quilts, though now dull and choked with plankton, still sang of wealth and nobility.

Particles of decay drifted through the water as he crossed the room. A cloud of barnicles created a thick murk around the floor as Arl pulled open the rotted door, its wood split long ago, and swam into the dark corridor within the ship. A shiver crawled up his spine as he gazed down the narrow hall. Thoughts of what might be lurking within the darkness flooded his mind, but he forced those away and tried to keep the magnificea fish the only thing in his mind's eye. Convincing himself that only a peaceful Cecaelia would make a comfortable dwelling of the ship, he slowly made his way down the hall.

It became more difficult for him to see as he swam through the corridor. When the darkness became too much for him, he dragged his hand along the wall. The thick slime that smothered the wall caught Arl by surprise at first, and his initial reaction was to retract his arm, but he was not willing to go into the darkness without support.

A strange noise swam toward him from one end of the hall, distorted by the water. It took Arl a couple of moments to recognize the sound as voices. A conversation was being held in the ship, somewhere near to him, but from where he couldn't tell. He was more concerned with who, or what, was having the conversation than from where it came. When he saw two green-glowing orbs appear in the darkness before him, he ducked into the nearest room, after groping about for the handle for much longer than he would have liked. Though he left a small crack between the door and the wall, through which he could see the yellow-green glow creeping closer, he kept a tight grip on his spear and prepared to defend himself if need-be.

Four figures appeared outside the door. Two of them held the yellow-green orbs that cast an eerie glow over everything within five feet in all directions. Arl caught his breath and stopped his filtering gills at the sight of them. Overall they looked human, though their fingers and toes were held together by a thin webbing, much like Arl's. They were larger than anybody he knew, and their fingernails extended into jagged claws. Their noses were wide and flattened against their muddy brown faces. Their eyes had an unusual cat-like slant that searched the area with deadly intention. As they spoke, Arl could see the rows of razor teeth that sliced through their gums.

"Do you smell that?" one of them asked, his rough voice deepened by the water. Tiny bubbles floated away from his lips as he spoke. "It smells like the moon."

Another of the creatures turned his head, giving Arl a view of his peculiar ears. They consisted of a series of fleshy rods that jutted off in many directions but met in the center, like a hand with splayed fingers. "I smell it too," he growled.

Arl might have been able to attack and come out of the encounter alive if there were only one Shark, but there were four. Four enormous, musclebound Sharks that had picked up his scent. They would track him down soon enough if he didn't throw them off the trail or escape. There was one advantage the Moon tribe had over their predatory cousins. Arl's people could swim twice as fast with at least four times the maneuverability possessed by the bulky Sharks. But there was nowhere for Arl to swim to, and with the Sharks' superior tracking abilities he would soon be found.

"There's no doubt about it. One of those little Tadpoles is hiding around here somewhere. Let's flush him out and skewer him!"

Desperately Arl scanned the room in which he hid, but in the darkness he could see nothing to give him an advantage. The yellow-green glow did penetrate the shadows slightly, but not enough to give him a glimpse of anything distinct. Nothing that could be a weapon or shelter. The light also reflected off the glass of an old porthole. He wondered if he could escape through it, if he could out maneuver four Sharks in open water. But the glass wasn't cracked, and smashing it would likely be no easy task. Besides, the shattering window would likely alert the Sharks, and they'd be on him before he could worm his way out of the ship.

Suddenly a loud crash echoed down the hall. Arl watched as the Sharks snapped their heads, almost simultaneously, in the direction of the noise.

"What was that?" one asked.

"The Tadpole must be hiding down there."

"Then let's go," growled one of them with a light. "I'm a little hungry."

In an instant they were gone, blasting down the corridor like missiles. Arl, less concerned with the noise and more concerned with escape, turned back to the porthole. He could no longer see it as the darkness had reclaimed the room when the light was lead away, but he knew where it was. He rubbed his hand across the smooth glass surface, hoping to find a crack that he had not seen before. There were none, and the glass was thick. It wouldn't break easily. The spear in his hand might have been able to shatter it, but the if it didn't his only weapon would most likely snap.

Turning away, he thought that he might have a better chance if he snuck into the hall while the Sharks were gone. He would figure out an escape route from there. As he drifted back to the doorway his foot brushed over something large and round. Curiously he bent down and rubbed his hand over the object, exploring it with great interest. It was almost smooth though a large cratered had formed on its surface.

"A cannonball?" he asked aloud, for a moment forgetting that Sharks were nearby.

He lifted it off the slime covered floor and judged its weight in his hands. Six pounds, he estimated, though he had never been very good at making such guesses. It might have been just enough to shatter the glass. He considered this, glancing back at the rounded window. If were above water he would have had no doubts that the cannonball would smash the window with ease, but in the depths of the ocean the water could dramatically bog down the impact.

"But I have no real choice, do I?" his voice bubbled.

Throwing the ball might not have worked, but thrusting it into the window as though it were an extension of his arm had a more satisfying result. The glass cracked, but only slightly, upon the first impact. The thin white lines spider webbed outward with each thwack, his ears defeaned to the explosive crash created with each impact by his evergrowing hope.

Several small shards fell out of the glass like broken teeth. When at last it seemed as though the glass was no longer held by the frame, but loosely balancing on the porthole's rim, Arl dropped the cannonball, ignoring the thud it made as it hit the floor, and thrust his sharkhead spear through the window. Shards of all shapes and sizes exploded outward, floating in the water for a brief moment before they drifted slowly downward, becoming miniscule sparkles that disappeared into the depths of the ocean. He stood in amazement for a moment, almost unwilling to believe that he might escape the sunken death trap.

"I found him!" The thickly accented voice snapped Arl back to reality. Not daring to glance over his shoulder when he heard the door slam open, he lunged for the porthole, half of his body falling into open water before he felt them tugging at his legs.

The Sharks grappled with his flailing feet. He wriggled and writhed, ignoring the pain inflicted by the jagged glass teeth that bit his flesh and tore his fins. Claws burrowed into his legs, drawing a generous amount of blood that formed a deep red mist in the water. The Sharks snarled and grunted as they struggled to pull him back through the porthole.

"No!" he shouted as he felt his ribs sink back into the ship. He tried to kick at the sharks, to loosen their grip in any manner he could think of, but they had bound his legs with their arms and were slowly moving their grip up the rest of his body

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